A grand conceit infuses the historical novel I Am Madame X (Scribner). Who was that striking beauty in the 1884 portrait by John Singer Sargent and how best to give her substance as a literary character? Sargent, the American Impressionist painter who lived in Europe, entered the painting in a competition in Paris, where it created quite a stir. He called it "Madame X," though as author Gioia Diliberto makes clear, any number of Parisians knew exactly who she was. The "scandal" surrounding the picture stemmed from the erotic tones Singer used in portraying a woman -- the 23-year-old Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Creole from Louisiana and, like Sargent, a rooted expatriate -- whose reputation mirrored the freewheeling sexual mores of her social class.
Sargent eventually sold the portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "I fell in love with the painting the moment I first saw it seventeen years ago," writes the author. "The woman in the painting seemed so alive, radiant with a mysterious, timeless beauty. Though Sargent had painted her in a previous century, she struck me as extraordinarily modern."
Diliberto is a biographer and former journalist whose three previous books include A Useful Woman, a life of Jane Addams. Her research hums through the pages of this fiction like a counter-rhythm to the true confessions mode and waltzes into an afterword where she tells us more about her protagonist. Diliberto says she was unable to find enough information to sustain a biography and so turned to fiction. The afterword and bibliography suggest that she probably could have written a nonfiction book about the painter, the picture and the mysterious lady.
But let us not dwell on words unwritten. I Am Madame X is a hybrid of historical and romance fiction. Some of the dialogue will make you groan.
"' I can't go through another war,' she cried. 'I know,' said Julie. 'All my courage is gone, too. We used it up in Louisiana.'"
Nevertheless, Diliberto puts her viewfinder on Parisian cafe society amidst the stirrings of la belle epoque. If you have the slightest soft spot for celebrity culture, I Am Madame X is a romping good read.
"All my life, I've needed to be in love and have someone in love with me. Even as a little girl, I had intense imaginary romances with characters in books for years I was smitted with D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. But Dr. Pozzi was the first real man I had fancied myself in love with."
This early revelation sets the stage for Virginie's deflowering -- as Prussian troops advance on Paris -- by a handsome, amoral French physician. Pathos accelerates after Pozzi discards Virginie on discovering that she is pregnant. She enters into an arranged, platonic marriage with Pierre, a friend of her mother. She suffers a miscarriage. Pierre turns out to be a chummy mate who, with a paramour of his own, takes care of Virginie financially with no arched eyebrows about her sexual journey through the city of light.
I must confess that the novel's dialogue made me laugh with a certain voyeuristic pleasure, as when Virginie has a fling with the great liberal politician, Léon Gambetta, who, although obese, speaks in treasured prose.
"Despite the promise of his kiss, Gambetta wasn't much of a lover. He seemed eager to get it over with so he could get back to his real passion -- talking. He finished quickly, rolled off, and immediately started gabbing. 'Madame, I feel inexpressibly comforted to have received your consoling tenderness,' he said as he lay by my side, staring at the ceiling. 'What delicious repose I'm enjoying now, what delightful peace! I feel carried away to dream and to enjoy. It is like drifting down a river and letting myself be guided by the current.'"
Virginie does not achieve much psychological depth as a character. Narcissists can be interesting if they have something beyond good looks and brashness to satisfy our curiosity. One follows Virginie's erotic peregrinations with a growing realization that she's not as shrewd as Jackie Kennedy or as concerned about the needy as Princess Di. She is at least more honest than Ann Coulter.
With the arrival of John Singer Sargent in the narrative's latter stages, Diliberto's insights into the world of art rise up to compete with Virginie's surface-to-surface sashay.
"He was a priest of art, as celibate as a monk. ... I'm sure the idea of sleeping with a man would have been as horrifying to him as the idea of sleeping with a woman. Perhaps more so.
"I never felt for a moment that Sargent desired me. He didn't see me as a human being, only as elements of his art."
As the plot heads to its moment of collision, Sargent with his code of aeshetic purity emerges as Virginie's spiritual opposite, the painter whose focus on his subject cannot make him see beauty in her soul. In that respect, I Am Madame X -- for all of the laughs and abundant lack of irony -- does achieve a touching finale.